Healing Children Through Pet Assisted Therapy

By Dr. James Feinberg

Child Clinical Psychologist


As your child having difficulty making friends? If so, should you be worried? Given that a child’s ability to make friends, grow friendships, and maintain friendships over time not only reflects his current psychological health but his future psychological adjustment and success as an adult, the answer is without a doubt, yes.

When children are not progressing socially, this is a strong cue that something serious is going on. In fact, lack of friendships is often indicative of an underlying behavioral, emotional, psychological, and/or neurological problem. A meticulous evaluation is essential to sorting out not only what is going on but what therapeutic interventions are warranted. However, often, after only a brief interview, a diagnosis is formulated and a prescription is written. This is usually where treatment stops. Although medication may alleviate some symptoms, it does not teach coping strategies or skills absolutely essential to learning about relationships.

So, how do children learn to make friends? Their brains provide an internal framework for social learning but interaction and modeling fine tune the process. Yet, some kids do not naturally learn the essentials, namely social judgment and social skills. Sadly, the harder these children try, the more their peers reject them for acting inappropriately. The more their parents and teachers try to help by pointing out what they are doing wrong or should be doing differently, the more shame these children feel. Clearly, these kids need help and on a number of levels but where do they and their families turn?

Pet assisted therapy is an extremely effective modality of treatment for childhood and adolescent social- interactional problems as it is highly empowering as well as non-shaming. Because children naturally gravitate toward pets because they want to love and be loved, the stage is easily set for social learning and emotional healing. Through guided interactions with my highly skilled therapy dogs, G and Dude both of whom are German Shepherds; children learn the nuts and bolts of relationships without even realizing it. This learning occurs gradually and in steps where the initial goal is only to observe my therapy dogs’ behavior and speculate what my dogs are trying to tell them. Children then learn to observe the effects of their behavior upon my therapy dogs’ facial expressions and body postures. Later, these children are encouraged to try other social behaviors to obtain the desired response from my therapy dogs. With time and repetition, these children not only learn to accurately read social cues and adjust their behavior accordingly, their emotional wounds are healed as well. Children and their parents consistently tell me that my loving four legged companions have greatly assisted them in transforming their lives.  To quote one child, “G is the best teacher I ever had!”

For more information contact Dr. Feinberg at 314-966-0880.